Business, Education, Motivational, Pep Talk

It Starts with a Handshake.

I am really good at Legos. Just ask my son Lewis. We built a lot of Legos together. Star Wars space ships half the size of his bedroom, Batman headquarters, and an entire city with every emergency vehicle known to humanity. Just look at the pictures and build something with wheels.  It’s a pretty gratifying experience. 

When they dropped the Lego box on the table and said it was a race, I felt my my heartbeat quicken. I reached for the box and announced to my four teammates, “Oh, we’ve GOT this! I’m really good at Legos!” It was summer 2014, day four of a week-long NAIS Fellowship for Aspiring Heads Conference. My teammates were from all over the country, male, female, most were division heads and most were appalled by my “direct” Admission Director approach. All week I’d felt like a car salesman at a yoga conference. Our mentor was the Zen leader of our dysfunctional group, consensus and collaboration was her mantra–everyone must be heard, and everyone must contribute. 

My ripping into the Lego box was not within the “behavioral norms” established just the day before in the special two-hour meeting our mentor called for us. Oops, I broke the rules again. As I poured the contents of the box out on the table, I remembered the “norms,” and said, “I’ll just help sort the colors.” One of the guys had the directions and was trying to figure it out. “I don’t really do Legos,” he said. “I’m happy to help,” I said. “In fact, if you’ll hand me the directions, I can whip it up in no time at all…” The other three sat with blank expressions on their faces, and our mentor said, “Everyone needs to have a chance, Beth.” Tick tock, tick tock, the other teams at other tables were busy laughing, building, winning, and our team was waiting for everyone to have input. Jody from Washington said, “I don’t know how to build Legos.” Sandy from the Caribbean was uninterested. Jason and Jack were fumbling and mumbling and taking forever. “Um, guys, we need to hurry,” I said. “Can I please see the directions?” “Everyone needs a chance to help, Beth,” the mentor said. Tick tock, tick tock…”WE HAVE A WINNER!” was the announcement from the front of the room. I sat back in my chair, deflated, and looked at a half-built Lego car, one tire twisted off the rim. Frustrated I said, “Will someone please explain to me how it makes sense on a timed project to ask for input from people who have zero experience and/or have zero interest in the final product?” Silence. 

I got held after class. I felt like I was in 4th grade all over again. This time I hadn’t beaten up Shack Wimbish on the playground, but my mentor was not happy with me. This was a hand-slap that felt like a paddling because this time it wasn’t about what I’d done; it was about who I was.

It was about my approach to the project and my lack of interest in team-building. I tried to defend myself, “It was a RACE,” I said. “Jody COULDN’T help, and Danielle didn’t WANT to help” I insisted. “I’m an Admission Director–I’m PAID to be competitive!” I pled. My mentor did not back down. It was a test on team building, and I failed. If I wanted to run a school, I needed to be myself, just not so much. 

AUTHENTICITY is all the buzz in marketing right now, and since authenticity is how I roll, I feel somewhat vindicated by its strong comeback. That is if I believe that the way I behaved at Aspiring Heads is what authenticity is all about. Without question, I was being myself, but what I’ve learned is that authenticity only works if vulnerability is its partner. 

The same summer Hurricane Betty (that’s me) attended Aspiring Heads, I read Brene Brown’s “Daring Greatly” in which she, along with my Zen leader and Lego-deficient team members, may have changed my life. I learned that to be authentic AND effective, one must know how to do this: 

1. Listen and try to understand the perspective of others before acting. 

2. Recognize our own challenges and say sorry when we make a mistake. 

3. Make adjustments. Have the courage to change. 

 I didn’t like the way my Aspiring Heads group worked or didn’t work. It wasn’t my style. Yet to operate in an authentic and effective way, they needed me to back off and stop “leading” so others could step forward and assert their skills. Once I began checking off Brene Brown’s list, slowly, the wheels started rolling on a much smoother road. 

I took this story back to The Lexington School for my annual faculty pep talk. They laughed at my Lego story because they’ve seen Hurricane Betty come through for open houses and hide their Tervis Tumblers under their desks or rearrange their classrooms, and I’m sure over the years there were plenty of times they wanted to slap my hand for my “direct” Admission Director approach. 

 But they understood how this story translated for them too, how building authentic relationships with their customers (their students, their parents, and each other) is about working the steps. It’s not always easy.  We don’t always jive with all of our “customers.” There are naughty kids who need too much attention, naughty parents who need even more, and colleagues whose ideas don’t sound good to us. Taking the time, working to understand others’ perspectives, recognizing our own challenges, saying sorry, and having the courage to make a change when something is no longer working are crucial steps in building something special. 

 Like a good rom-com, this story ends well. Over the next 7 months, my Aspiring Heads group met remotely and built a beautiful and well-received presentation for the NAIS 2015 conference in Boston. Every member of the group contributed meaningfully, and we left having built some beautiful, collegial relationships too. 

 In 2014 I constructed a new mantra, “It starts with a handshake and ends with a hug.” It came from the directional pamphlet that was Aspiring Heads, Brene Brown, and some personal reflection. It’s a little cheesy I know, but it works to remind me of what authenticity is and how building towards that symbolic or literal hug takes some specific steps. They are steps that will make me (and/or my organization) more effective and ensure that at the end of the race, all four wheels have made it onto the car. Done right, it’s a pretty gratifying experience.

2 thoughts on “It Starts with a Handshake.”

  1. Beth,
    I am intrigued by your story. It is a great example of what is wrong with many aspects of our current society. I’m glad you were able to internalize the experience and learn from it, but I would still point out to your group mates that your group “lost” because your leader demanded input from those unable or unwilling to contribute. Our society today often wants equality of outcomes without equality of effort, experience and/or talent. If your leader had any vision at all she/he would have listened to your experience, let you delegate out the tasks, and then accoplish the tasks as quickly and efficiently as possible. The “mentor” seemed more intent on exhibiting their judgment of you than a willingness to try to excel at the task. This quality is a sure sign of a weak leader and one who will lead an organization into stagnation because they want the innovative or experienced or driven members of their group to bow to a level of mediocrity so others don’t get their “feelings hurt.” People like yourself, who can take a lesson from a bad teacher ( your group mentor), and make a positive experience from it, are the ones who will become good leaders that lead growing enterprises.


    1. Jim,
      Thanks so much for this thoughtful and kind comment on my blog. Your points are valid. The Lego story was a five-minute interaction that summarized a difficult experience for me. I questioned the same points you do. Yet the challenge with this group led me to reflect and pay closer attention along the way. I agree with your point on leadership and delegation, and I have seen instances where the pendulum has swung too far the other way and the project is paralyzed by the process. I’ve also been lucky enough to work with highly competent people who when asked for input always end up making things better than when I operate on my own. Again, thanks for your feedback. It’s always great to hear from you!


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